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Climate Change

Volume 685: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the future of climate change.

My Lords, the Government’s assessment of future climate change comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, which indicated that mean global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade above 1990 levels by 2100. This will result in rising sea levels and more extreme weather, with increased risk of severe flooding. For the UK, the UK Climate Impacts Programme’s scenarios project warmer and wetter winters and hotter and drier summers, with more extreme heatwaves.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but does he agree that it is difficult to look at the situation 100 years from now with any certainty of what may happen in reality about climate change, as well as many other matters? Given that we contribute about 2 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and China, the United States and India contribute about 70 per cent, why are we making our contribution appear so important? Since global warming could mean a warmer Britain and could even be welcomed, as we have seen this summer, why should we not go along with the consensus, rather than wishing to be a world leader on climate change, as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said we should be last Thursday?

My Lords, being a world leader will actually be good for business as well as meaning that are taking responsibility for looking after the planet. We will not be here in 100 years, but others will, and we have a responsibility if we know something is happening out there to do something about it. I would invite anyone who has not seen it to go and have a look at Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth”.

There are assessments that say that the UK will get hotter, but one aspect of climate change could be the slowdown or possible stopping of the North Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation of the Gulf Stream. I assure my noble friend that that would not lead to us in the UK just worrying about cold winters; we would be a lot colder than we are now. In other words, the predictions go both ways. If climate change stopped the circulation in the Atlantic of the Gulf Stream, we would be in really serious trouble. The predictions are there, and the situation has been assessed by the scientists. It is not simply something that has happened in the past that comes around every few hundred years. There is enough evidence that human behaviour has changed what happens on the planet; therefore, we have to use human behaviour to try to rectify or take account of that.

My Lords, with all the risks that the Minister explained in his first Answer of rising sea levels and flooding, why have the Government cut the budget for flood defences and adaptation work to Natural England and other such bodies?

My Lords, the short answer is that the capital budget for flood protection has not been cut.

My Lords, have the Government yet found a causal link between CO2 levels and global warming? There were periods at the time of the Romans and in the Middle Ages when the weather got very much hotter and at that stage, of course, CO2 levels were insignificant.

My Lords, there is quite a bit of science to this, and I am an engineer not a scientist. People have claimed that these cycles have come and gone over the years, and I understand that Milankovitch, the Serbian mathematician, had a look at the way in which the planet oscillates from time to time and the orbit changes very slightly—these things happen maybe every 100,000 years. The fact is that that has been discounted. Other scientists—now there is a consensus—would say that human behaviour is making a difference to the climate. We have a responsibility to push this thing ahead as a world leader. That is our role, and it is one that we gladly share with others.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that our problem really is the speed of change of the climate, which reduces the ability of organisms to adapt to it? Will he also take this opportunity to tell the House a little more about the economics of biofuels? All the evidence is that, when the oil price rises to $70 or $80 a barrel, biofuels become profitable. Given the demand from India and China, $80 a barrel does not seem unlikely. Could he tell the House a little more about what we could do to encourage the use and development of biofuels?

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend asked that question, although we have had no discussion of it. The fact is that ordinary life need not stop as we adapt to climate change. We have enough evidence to show that in the past few years, between 1990 and 2005, when our emissions fell by 15 per cent, GDP rose by more than 40 per cent. If we can manage the situation, we could have new industries and new products.

With biofuels, I can give an example of how the situation will not shatter our way of life in terms of having to change and adjust. Yesterday, I was a guest of Energy Efficient Motorsport at Silverstone for the British Touring Car Championship. Engines there were running and racing on 85 per cent bioethanol fuels. In other words, not for the first time, British engineers are leading in technology transfer; we are working on fuels that we have grown and that are sustainable and do not damage the atmosphere. That will transfer to ordinary motoring so that others can make use of the land to grow crops and grow our fuel.

My Lords, is not the danger of the Government’s reply in referring to what the situation may be in 2100 the implication that things move quite slowly? Is not the proposal inMr Al Gore’s film that things are actually moving very much faster than was previously thought? I think that the Minister said that the Government’s position was based on assessments made at the 2001 intergovernmental Conference. Would it not be a good idea perhaps to update that, to make people aware that there is a real risk that things are moving very much faster than was previously thought?

My Lords, the noble Lord is bang on. I understand that a review of that is due in 2007, so we will be able to get a new assessment. Also, the economist Professor Stern will shortly publish his report, which he has worked on for world organisations. With regard to the noble Lord’s point about what is happening, one of the examples given is that heatwaves such as the one that occurred in Europe in 2003 are predicted to be a normal occurrence by 2040 and will be considered cool by 2060. The 2003 heatwave, of course, caused over 30,000 extra deaths across Europe due to heat-related mortality. Something is happening, it is happening quickly, and we need to respond to it.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that getting the agreement of the United States on climate change can be viewed pessimistically or optimistically?

My Lords, it has been assessed that legal requirements will force changes by companies. There is no question about that; getting them todo so voluntarily will probably not work. But, to paraphrase my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, one does not have to love George W Bush to appreciate that American scientists have got nearer to joining the world consensus than they have in the past.